Visit the Tam Tams Festival at Montréal’s Mount Royal Park on any given Sunday in the summer, and you’ll get a good picture of Québec’s often contradictory relationship with cannabis. Amid drum circles, artisans selling their wares on blankets and live-action role players dressed up as knights, the smell of cannabis wafts in the air.
Police officers standing on the sidelines have long turned a blind eye to the cannabis being consumed in plain view, even before legalization. Meanwhile, overlooking the scene is Mount Royal’s giant crucifix, a local landmark and a reminder of when the Catholic Church dominated life in Québec.
While the church may no longer be the force it once was here, the contrast between hundreds of people smoking marijuana in the shadow of a 31-metre cross encapsulates much about what makes Québec both so progressive and conservative at the same time. It’s a tension currently being played out through the debate over Bill 2, which—if passed in its current form—will make cannabis regulation in la belle province the strictest in the country.
Here’s what Bill 2 could mean for cannabis in Canada’s second-largest province.
Bill 2 Would Raise the Legal Marijuana Age & Ban Public Consumption
Bill 2 would make two big changes to Québec’s cannabis laws:
- It would raise the legal age to buy and consume cannabis from 18 to 21. This would take Québec from having the lowest minimum age for consumption (alongside Alberta) to the highest in Canada. All other provinces and territories (outside of Alberta and Québec) set a minimum marijuana age of 19.
- It would prohibit smoking cannabis in all public places, such as sidewalks, parks and festivals. Currently, smoking cannabis is prohibited wherever smoking tobacco is already banned.
These proposed changes come on top of regulations that are in some ways already highly restrictive. For example, Québec and Manitoba are the only provinces that already ban people from growing their own cannabis at home.
Québec also prohibits private retailers from selling cannabis, with Quebeckers confined to using government-run Société québécoise du cannabis (SQDC) stores.
The Government Cites Concerns About Youth’s Brain Development & Cannabis
The government insists that cannabis can have a detrimental impact on brain development in young people, and this is why it’s pursuing Bill 2. To be fair, it may not be entirely wrong on this point. There’s research suggesting that cannabis does have a negative effect on adolescents’ brain development, including on memory and cognitive functions.
A Université de Montréal study of nearly 4,000 Québec high school students, for example, found a correlation between cannabis consumption and psychosis.
The government argues that legalizing cannabis consumption for young people minimizes these risks and sends the message that cannabis is completely safe. It argues that raising the minimum age would send the opposite message.
On the surface, this seems like a perfectly valid argument. However, it does run into some problems when you look at it a little closer.
For one, there’s no proof that prohibition was ever effective at keeping Québec youth away from cannabis. The provincial government’s own data show that in 2014–2015, when cannabis was still illegal, 31% of 15- to 17-year-olds in Québec had smoked marijuana, while 42% of 18- to 24-year-olds had. Clearly, young people in the province have no trouble accessing marijuana, regardless of its legality.
Also, if protecting youths is the main reason behind Bill 2, then why not target other substances, like alcohol and cigarettes, that have a much more detrimental impact on youth? The age to purchase alcohol and tobacco are both 18 in Québec, which (along with a couple of other provinces) is the lowest in Canada. The government has made no mention of raising these ages, thereby sending the message that cigarettes and alcohol are less dangerous than cannabis is.
And this is simply untrue.
As Jean-Sébastien Fallu, an addictions specialist and professor in psycho-education at the Université de Montréal recently pointed out, “If we are worried about our kids, we should first of all address alcohol. It's way more dangerous than cannabis."
He notes that the risk of addiction, toxicity, accidents and death are much higher with alcohol than cannabis. He also says that the data linking cannabis to impaired brain development in youths are far from conclusive, and that instances of brain damage among youths who smoke marijuana are rare.
Jean-Sébastien was among a group of Québec health professionals who recently signed a statement urging the government to reconsider Bill 2. He points out that raising the legal age could force youths to buy products that are more dangerous than those available at government-run stores. Since youths will be forced to buy from the black market, this could expose them to cannabis that’s unregulated and potentially contaminated with pesticides, or containing higher levels of THC.
Montréal Says Prohibition on Public Marijuana Smoking Is Unrealistic
Beyond concerns about the law’s lack of effectiveness at protecting youths, the prohibition against public smoking is also facing backlash, especially in Montréal.
Québec’s largest city has the lowest rate of home ownership in Canada, with a full 63% of Montrealers renting rather than owning their homes. Given that many landlords have already prohibited tenants from smoking cannabis on their property, that will leave the majority of Montreal residents with few, if any, legal ways to actually smoke cannabis if Bill 2 passes.
“Municipalities should have the right to decide what makes sense on their territory. I do not believe in one fit for all. Montréal is different than Baie-Comeau or Rouyn-Noranda,” Montréal Mayor Valérie Plante recently said, referencing largely rural areas of the province at a public hearing where she lambasted Bill 2.
Indeed, the previous government’s cannabis regulations allowed municipalities to decide for themselves whether to ban public consumption.
Even the city’s police chief, Sylvain Caron, has come out against Bill 2. He notes that responding to a call about cannabis being consumed in a prohibited space currently takes about 15–45 minutes. If the province were to make smoking in public illegal, the police would be so tied up responding to cannabis-related complaints that they wouldn’t have time for any other police work.
Despite Hearings, New Cannabis Rules Seem Inevitable
So, will Bill 2 actually become law?
Premier François Legault made tougher cannabis regulation a central campaign promise during last year’s election, and his governing Coalition Avenir Québec has a strong majority in the legislature. This means there’s nothing stopping Bill 2 from becoming law.
While the government is holding hearings on Bill 2 to get feedback, it’s unlikely these hearings will lead to substantive changes.
Deputy Health Minister Lionel Carmant, who introduced Bill 2, bluntly stated, “We aren’t backing away, this is clear.” In other words, Bill 2 seems inevitable.
Or, as the opposition public health critic André Fortin quipped during the middle of a dark and cold winter day in Québec City earlier this year, “Groups coming here [to the legislature] have a better chance of getting sunburn than of convincing the minister to change his bill.”
Photo credit: 613rd420th/Shutterstock.com